Cup Series pit crews will have an adjustment period in 2022, finding a rhythm with the new single lug-nut mounting system on Next Gen cars.
Like most good ideas, it started with a basic sketch.
The Next Gen car that debuts in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series has new features aplenty, not the least of which is the break from the long-standing five-lug wheel to a single, center-locking fastener on the larger aluminum wheels. Pit stops are about to change, some in subtle ways and others evolutionary.
So Brian Haaland, pit crew coach at Joe Gibbs Racing, and his team drew up something new for their playbook, cracking into the logistics of starting pit service quicker on the right side of the car. If the right-front changer was in position to start at zero seconds when the car rolled to a stop and the stopwatch began, then the rear changer would start work about a half-second later, waiting for the car to pass by before sweeping around the back end.
How to start both at zero? JGR rear-tire changer Lee Cunningham thought out loud: If you backed the car in, no problem.
“Just this idea popped up: Wait a minute, why aren’t you waiting on the car, and that’s truthfully how it started,” Haaland said. “How can I draw this up? I got a little napkin out and started drawing it up and it just evolved.”
What Joe Gibbs Racing is calling its “Next Gen pit stop” had launched, at least on paper. The new choreography operated under a new premise, sending all four crew members involved in jacking the car and changing tires around the front of the car first. The quartet would then relay race over to the left, with the right-front changer circling around to the left rear, and the right-rear changer then hitting the left front. The fifth crew member, the fueler, was free to do his or her job without changers or carriers scurrying around behind.
“We got together as a staff and really worked on it, like how would these details go and then we came out and tried it,” Haaland said. “It worked, right, to kind of our surprise. We were early enough in development with the other stuff and this one that we saw enough promise to keep pushing at it, and we found some crazy speed with it.”
It’s the latest nuance to a NASCAR season that comes preloaded with change. The over-the-wall dance of right-side/left-side service will still be a familiar friend with the all-new car, but the tire-changing tango will be a bit quicker — keeping the athletes working pit road even more so on their toes.
Interviewed in 2014 for a feature about the history and evolution of the NASCAR pit stop, Chris Rice — then the competition manager for RAB Racing — said the sport had reached its limit. Pit stops in the 11- to 12-second range back then were the benchmark for an efficient crew.
“The only way to get faster is go to one lug nut,” Rice said, “and I don‘t ever see that coming because we‘re running a stock car.”
That changed in March 2020, when NASCAR competition officials released images of the beefier 18-inch wheels the Next Gen car would ride on, complete with a single-lug mounting system to keep them secure at speed. Reminded about his declaration nearly eight years later, Rice — now the team president at Kaulig Racing — takes any friendly jabs with his trademark good humor.
“Well, the first thing I want to say is I was wrong,” Rice said, breaking into a wide smile. “That’s always good. But you know, the cool thing about it is that it’s something different, right? So we’ve evolved ever since you and I’ve had that conversation over the last couple of years. Racing had to step up to a different level.”
With the new mounting system comes larger, heavier air guns to accommodate the single fastener. The larger wheel and tire combo is slightly more cumbersome in the changing process, but the time saving arrives in changing one larger lug nut versus unbolting and resecuring five smaller ones. The new sound is also notable: The single lug goes on and off with a louder ratcheting noise, replacing the high-pitched, five-beat staccato whirring from the previous system.
The new system also places a new strategy factor into the hands of crew chiefs, since the time to change tires no longer syncs with the extra amount of time needed to add a full load of fuel. The gas can’s flow rate remains the same, so crew chiefs have a call to make — leave pit road quicker without a full tank or wait the extra moment for the second fuel can to empty.
“For the crew chiefs, it’s going to be kind of depending on your track position, you’ll potentially maybe add another pit stop because you won’t have enough fuel in the car to run the distance, or you may wait and take a few seconds of fuel just so you can make the distance and eliminate a pit stop,” said Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Spire Motorsports’ No. 7 Chevrolet and driver Corey LaJoie. “You know it’s going to depend a lot on tire wear of the race track and just kind of what kind of surface you’re on, and where you’re at track position-wise what kind of decision you make. But it is definitely going to bring another element of strategy into the mix, which should be interesting.”
And the slight uptick in tire-changing speed has placed extra emphasis on the other crew members to perform.
“Now the gas man’s so important to be able to get a second can in the quickest,” said Josh Shipplett, a tire carrier for 23XI Racing’s No. 45 Toyota and driver Kurt Busch. “If you’re two or three tenths (of a second) quicker on that exchange, it’s another half-gallon of gas you’re getting in the car.”
Said Adam Stevens, crew chief for JGR’s No. 20 team and pilot Christopher Bell: “There’s going to be a lot of times where you’re waiting on fuel, so that can exchange, it’s going to be mission critical. Getting plugged in as soon as possible is going to be critical and having a clean plug, so you don’t catch an air bubble. I mean, all of that stuff is going to be immensely important this year. It was always important, but it’s a lot more important.”
And to change tires quicker, the car will need to come off the ground quicker.
“All your speed right now is going to be made from the jack man. So his around time, getting around the car is super important,” Sparks said. “Just him coming off the jack from the right front to the left rear, that’s where all the speed is made. So you know the tire changers of old had fast hand speed, hitting the five lugs and that used to be where a lot of your speed was? Now I’d say the majority of it is still or is now in the jack man.”
Joe Gibbs Racing’s pit crews did their best to stay limber on a chilly recent Monday morning, convening in the purpose-built pit stall behind the sprawling shop. Temperatures hovered just above the overnight low, but heaters worked to keep those behind the wall toasty.
Each team was assigned an hour-long block on the workout schedule for pit practice. The six Toyota teams — four from JGR and two from affiliate 23XI — shared the time slots, two teams per hour. Video boards showed pit-stop replays from five angles, and a countdown clock ticked down the days, hours and minutes remaining until the season-opening Daytona 500.
Crews alternated from right-side changes, then lefts before diving into the new Next Gen choreography for four-tire stops. The crews’ times regularly dipped into the mid-10-second range, the result of weeks of drills and trial and error. In the early phase, Haaland admitted, the error portion was slightly more prominent.
“When we started this out, it was 20 of them a day. When that lug nut goes spinning, it’s halfway down the parking lot before we can get a hold of it,” Haaland said. “That’ll be something to watch for at the race track. That’ll be a big concern, just guys not being patient enough or hitting the lug nut completely square, it can shoot right out of that socket.”
This Monday practice goes far smoother, without errant lugs bounding down the pavement. JGR’s crews have adapted to their new method and unveiled it on social media Jan. 25, but they will have to keep the previous technique in their bag for a while longer.
NASCAR officials initially banned the new choreography this offseason, instituting a rule that stated the rear tire-changer must approach the car from the back as before. Competition officials indicated routing both air hoses around the front end of the car raised concerns, as the risk for tangling and tripping ran higher, even with a crew member managing the hoses and taking up any slack from behind the wall.
JGR responded by inviting NASCAR officials to its Huntersville, North Carolina, shop to watch the technique in person to allay their uneasiness. After a review, the rule was later rescinded but will remain in place until the Cup Series visits Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 20, allowing other teams to perhaps play catch-up.
“We reached out to NASCAR and asked them to come and just look and see our pit stop, and blow it apart, tell us what’s not safe or what you don’t like about it,” Haaland said. “And so I applaud them for coming over spending the time just to learn more about it.”
The learning experience has continued with the Toyota pit crews, with relative newcomers along with veterans adjusting to the new ways of pit service.
“To me, it’s the perfect time to do it, because everything’s different anyway,” said Jake Lind, a tire changer with the No. 45 team. “It’s more difficult, breaking old habits that you’ve done forever. This with the single lug — different wheel, different gun, different everything? You have to change everything anyway. What’s a couple more things, basically.”
But the seemingly small extras can add up. A slip or miscue can throw off the timing for other crew members working in unison, especially with the margin for error — and elapsed time — shrinking. And the “feel” for over-the-wall veterans in securing the new wheels will take its own adjustment period.
“Just to my position, the hardest part I think is just learning what is a tight wheel and what isn’t a tight wheel,” said Houston Stamper, tire changer for the No. 19 JGR Toyota and driver Martin Truex Jr. “When you hit five lug nuts for 16 years, you know without a shadow of a doubt whether that wheel’s going to hold or not, or if it’s going to be borderline. That’s probably the one thing I’m concentrating on the most is really trying to zero in on what’s going to be tight and what isn’t going to be tight.
“There’s only one lug nut, so I don’t really have a lot of wiggle room anymore. It’s got to be tight enough for Martin to make it around the race track, but it also can’t be so tight that we jeopardize time on pit road. There’s definitely a fine line, and I think it’s there, we’ve just got to find it.”
Sometimes learning the new roles isn’t enough. Learning the new names of those roles has required some adjustment, too.
“I mean, I think it’s taken me three months to not call myself a rear changer anymore because I did it for 20 years,” Lind said. “Just a force of habit. So now I’m right-front, left-rear. OK, so I’m a front changer on that side and a rear changer on the other.”
Said Shipplett: “People have always asked me if I’m a front carrier or rear carrier. Now it’s, well, I do both.”
The final round of pit stops last year for the outgoing sixth-generation stock car and its five-lug setup was a dazzler. From the first pit stall, the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports crew ripped through its four-tire stop in the Cup Series season finale at Phoenix Raceway, getting driver Kyle Larson back on track lickety-split and providing him an edge for the final run to the checkered flag. Larson won the race and with it, his first Cup championship.
No. 5 crew chief Cliff Daniels was back at Phoenix last month for the final preseason test of the Next Gen car. Asked if his team had properly applied its athleticism and fast reflexes to the new style of pit stops, Daniels said the proof would come once the regular season starts at Daytona International Speedway.
“It’s hard to say, you know? Everybody’s trying to learn what they can through pit-stop practice right now, which there’s just a totally different cadence and nuance to it,” Daniels said. “And just like us with the car, the guys pitting the cars, until you’re out there in competition, you’re not going to know. Practice is only going to tell you so much, then you’ve got to really do it when the pressure is on and you’re in the moment and learn as you go.”
Teams will get that first chance next week in the run-up to the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM). Next Gen cars were on track for the first time in competition last Sunday at the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but live pit stops were not a component of the short-track exhibition.
Come Daytona, the simulated stops crew members have been practicing will unfold with other teams in neighboring stalls, all trying to gain an upper hand. That margin for error will shrink again.
“I mean, everything just happens so fast with a single lug that pressure points are a lot different,” Stevens said. “Pit road is going to be a busy place. The big thing is that there’s going to be criss-crossing traffic a lot, and there’s going to be cars coming in while cars are going out because the stops are so fast. It puts a lot of stress behind the wall, you know, tires rolling everywhere. Just anything that you ratchet the speed up, the opportunity for mistakes is a lot bigger.”
The degree of difficulty also comes with the opportunity for pit-road glory. Teams should continue to fine-tune their approach as the regular season gets underway, gaining precious time as their reps increase in practice and on race day.
The new tools and framework for single-lug stops are in place, but some of the same guiding pit-road principles still apply.
“You know, there’s a lot of things that are similar for the guys that are pitting the car,” Haaland said, “but it really comes down to putting in the work every single day and kind of swallow your pride because you’ve had this experience or whatever, and just have an open mind and be willing to learn new things because it’s new for all of us.
“It’s exciting, because it’s something different and the guys have bought into it. The stops are fast and it’s fun.”